What Obama Meant When He Said “We Tortured Some Folks”

Weigel
Reporting on Politics and Policy.
Aug. 1 2014 4:17 PM

What Obama Meant When He Said “We Tortured Some Folks”

Was6501933
A serious subject

Photo by Jewel Samad/AFP/GettyImages

A hastily convened news conference ended with President Obama seeming to make some news. After reporters demanded the president weigh in on whether CIA Director John Brennan should keep his job, they got a yes, and a meandering monologue that ended with this admission: The coming declassified report on interrogations would find that "we tortured some folks."

Torture! This news led the AP's story on the presser. "Obama's remarks on Friday were more emphatic than his previous comments on the subject," wrote Ken Dilanian, "including a 2009 speech in which he trumpeted his ban of 'so-called enhanced interrogation techniques,' and 'brutal methods,' but did not flatly say the U.S. has engaged in torture."

Advertisement

But Obama has used the T-word before. In 2009 he described waterboarding as "torture." Nearly 15 months ago, in the National Defense University speech that was scheduled after the first Edward Snowden leaks, Obama admitted that America had used torture in its aggressive response to the 9/11 attacks—and then he came along and stopped it.

Most of these changes were sound. Some caused inconvenience. But some, like expanded surveillance, raised difficult questions about the balance that we strike between our interests in security and our values of privacy. And in some cases, I believe we compromised our basic values -- by using torture to interrogate our enemies, and detaining individuals in a way that ran counter to the rule of law.
So after I took office, we stepped up the war against al Qaeda but we also sought to change its course. We relentlessly targeted al Qaeda’s leadership. We ended the war in Iraq, and brought nearly 150,000 troops home. We pursued a new strategy in Afghanistan, and increased our training of Afghan forces.  We unequivocally banned torture, affirmed our commitment to civilian courts, worked to align our policies with the rule of law, and expanded our consultations with Congress.

Why is Obama reiterating this now? Because the report is on the way, and because by being blunt he can go further than the authors of the report will go. (They do not use the word "torture.") And because Obama's approach to the topic, like his approach to the issues discussed in the NDU speech, is an assurance that the worst practices ended when he took over.

David Weigel is a reporter for Bloomberg Politics

TODAY IN SLATE

Culturebox

The End of Pregnancy

And the inevitable rise of the artificial womb.

Doctor Tests Positive for Ebola in New York City

How a Company You’ve Never Heard of Took Control of the Entire Porn Industry

The Hot New Strategy for Desperate Democrats

Blame China for everything.

The Questions That Michael Brown’s Autopsies Can’t Answer

Foreigners

Kiev Used to Be an Easygoing Place

Now it’s descending into madness.

Technology

Don’t Just Sit There

How to be more productive during your commute.

There Has Never Been a Comic Book Character Like John Constantine

Which Came First, the Word Chicken or the Word Egg?

  News & Politics
The Slate Quiz
Oct. 24 2014 12:10 AM Play the Slate News Quiz With Jeopardy! superchampion Ken Jennings.
  Business
Moneybox
Oct. 23 2014 5:53 PM Amazon Investors Suddenly Bearish on Losing Money
  Life
Outward
Oct. 23 2014 5:08 PM Why Is an Obscure 1968 Documentary in the Opening Credits of Transparent?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 23 2014 11:33 AM Watch Little Princesses Curse for the Feminist Cause
  Slate Plus
Working
Oct. 23 2014 11:28 AM Slate’s Working Podcast: Episode 2 Transcript Read what David Plotz asked Dr. Meri Kolbrener about her workday.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 23 2014 6:55 PM A Goodfellas Actor Sued The Simpsons for Stealing His Likeness. Does He Have a Case?
  Technology
Technology
Oct. 23 2014 11:47 PM Don’t Just Sit There How to be more productive during your commute.
  Health & Science
Science
Oct. 23 2014 5:42 PM Seriously, Evolution: WTF? Why I love the most awkward, absurd, hacked-together species.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.